When I was a kid of 12 or 13, I had a job selling newspaper subscriptions door to door. Each day we’d meet our driver at 6:00pm, pile into his old station wagon and hit up various towns looking for people to buy a subscription to some local rag. There were all sorts of incentives for top subscription getters; stuff like free dinner at McDonalds and maybe a walkman or a cassette tape of your choice. Armed with an armload of free papers, we hit the street, desperate for cash and, somehow, acceptance. It’s downright demoralizing putting yourself out there to try and make a sale only to get shot down. Luckily for me, I got out of the sales game shortly thereafter. Yet Thomas Lindsey (Clark), the affable loser salesman in Jake Mahaffy’s outstanding film “Wellness,” has stuck around way past his salesman prime.
From the get-go, we learn Lindsey is an odd duck. He has a hobby that consists of collecting big, gray, papery hornets nests by climbing trees and cutting them down (and Lindsey is no spring chicken either, as he’s pushing 60 years old). The awkwardness of seeing him climb a tree to cut down his bounty is nothing compared to the awkwardness found when he ties to make a sales pitch on “Wellness,” a brand new development in the health care field. The product is vague and Lindsey knows it, but in the sales game, you sell… it doesn’t matter what the product might be. Lindsey refuses to say die and trudges on through tiny, snowy East Coast towns looking for a sale.
“Wellness” is an extremely emotional film as we fall right in line with Lindsey as he tries to eke out a living, but really empathizing with Lindsey raised an issue for me. I found myself feeling strangely manipulated with the way Mahaffy sometimes seems to take perverse joy in setting Lindsey up in situations that are destined for disaster. It’s just not nice to make an audience care for a character and then put him or her through the ringer. We learn pretty early on that Lindsey is more or less destined to fail but each situation just deepened this impending sense of doom and it was really quite painful to watch. Several scenes are improvised with people the cast and crew met in convenience stores, gas stations and on the street, while other well-acted scenes really pull the narrative together. Yet throughout, the level of discomfort seems to rise no matter who Lindsey shares a scene with. Even an improv scene where Lindsey merely tries to order a hotdog in a gas station feels drawn out to an excruciating length.
Another example: at one point, Lindsey continues to struggle; he sets up a meeting with a regional sale guy named Paul who’s like a more intense and meaner Lawrence Tierney. The two of them are a poorly matched pair as Lindsey prefers the soft approach and Paul literally seems like he would punch someone out if they denied his sales pitch. The scenes with Paul definitely make us relate more to Lindsey yet the more we learn about Paul, we see “Wellness” (the product) isn’t all it seems and the stakes of miserable failure are raised again for both the audience and for the Lindsey character as well. The more we discover about the “Wellness” product the more the plot thickens and Lindsey sinks deeper into some serious s**t.
As I mentioned, I sometimes felt as though Mahaffy were intentionally placing the Lindsey character in truly awful, painful positions just to make the audience squirm but in the end, is that so bad? There’s also a strong sense that Lindsey’s character has allowed himself to get where he is so why should we not look at that and see if he can break free from his choices? As the film marched on it became imbued with a quiet yet potent intensity that kind of crept up on me and in the end was powerful, emotional and fairly overwhelming. Although I still felt toyed with, I also felt tied to the movie emotionally which I suppose was the point. I found myself rooting harder and harder for a Lindsey victory of any kind.
“Wellness” was shot on the super-duper low budget side but clever camera work and excellent use of radio mics make you kind of forget that. Jeff Clark as Lindsey and Paul Mahaffy as Paul are outstanding actors and the characters they play are equally impressive. “Wellness” is like a classic tale of American struggle and woe, almost a low-fi “Death of a Salesman” (and that’s not giving anything away). In fact I can almost see Thomas Lindsey as Willy Loman in his final travels before returning home as he does in the opening scene of the play. But wherever Jake Mahaffy drew inspiration from, I’m glad he did and you will be too if you buy into “Wellness.”